Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Turning a Garden into a City

In our mid-week Study/Pot-luck extraordinaire at Living Hope Church, we have been studying the topic of work, more specifically, the work for which God made us. When you look at Scripture with this topic in mind, there is a rich and varied theology of work from literally the first to the last page of Scripture. One of those "book-end" details is a tree that shows up both at the beginning of the human story and at the end. When God plants the garden he puts in it a Tree of Life. Then humanity is given the responsibility to tend to the garden. Then, at the end of history as we know it, God's children are re-gathered in a city in which is planted, you guessed it, the Tree of Life.

Genesis 2:9 "And out of the ground the Lord God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. The tree of life was in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil."

Revelation 22:2 "...also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations."

We begin in a garden, are given the task of cultivating it, and we end up in a city. A lot has been said about the significance of this move, but I find it provocative to pull Socrates into the discussion. Biblically speaking, the garden we are given by God is cultivated by the gifts and resources he gave each of us and the resources he embedded in creation. We work, as God's under-creators, and turn his gift into a city, which is from a certain point of view, the collection of a multitude of trades each laboring for the good of the city. This is, basically, how Socrates described the city in Plato's Republic. Each trade is engaged in for the betterment of individuals and families, but also have the larger purpose of building the just city.

Biblically, humans are creative and productive because they are created in the image of a God who is creative and productive. We take the things God provided for us, we employ our gifts and trades for the good of ourselves and our neighbors, and we build a city. And then, finally, when God rules all in all, that city (that collection of human productivity in the virtues of Christ) becomes the perfect city - the City of God.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Self-Destructive Cycle of Self-Infantilization: We're All Babies Now!

Three articles, three separate sets of circumstances, the same problem. The problem is the self-infantilization of our culture, and it will lead to wide-spread and unsavory consequences.

At the National Review Online, Charles Cooke writes about the chilling effect of liberal emovitism in, "The New 'McCarthyism' Exists, but it Has Nothing to Do with Ted Cruz." He cites the case of a Purdue-based doctoral student and teacher named Fredrik deBoer who publicly lamented the state of his students, and thus the state of his teaching.

Fredrik deBoer took to Twitter to rail bitterly against the toxic climate that the advocates of “tolerance” have created on his campus. “Students,” deBoer wrote, are “very quick learners,” and they have realized that they can use our present hysteria to advance their interests. Indeed, far from helping to educate, deBoer added, our current penchant for hyper-sensitivity is having a deleterious effect on the quality of the critical training he is expected to provide. “If you question even the most obviously dishonest and self-interested invocation of trauma/triggering/etc,” deBoer lamented, “you will be criticized severely.”

And then a liberal friend of deBoer's adds her two-cents on the situation.

Writing anonymously on the “White Hot Harlots” blog, a “passionate leftist” friend of deBoer’s painted a disquietingly similar picture. “Saying anything that goes against liberal orthodoxy,” he declared, “is now grounds for a firin’.” Indeed, “even if you make a reasonable and respectful case, if you so much as cause your liberal students a second of complication or doubt you face the risk of demonstrations, public call-outs, and severe professional consequences.”... in fact. “I would not get fired for pissing off a Republican,” our anonymous friend insists. Rather, “liberal students scare the s*** out of me.

These teachers at public universities have come face-to-face with the intellectual climate created by secular progressivism - a climate of reason, free-exchange, and pursuit of the truth has been replaced with violent and threatening displays of emotion.

At the magazine, First Things, Mark Bauerlein writes about how it has become difficult to impossible to interact with this kind of emotivism in, "The Rhetoric of Anti-Discrimination." His article focuses on a briefing by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights titled, "Examining workplace Discrimination Against Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Americans." In it he quotes the transgendered representative at length making it obvious that the only argument offered up in favor of their position was an appeal to emotion. Bauerlein concludes,

What argument can be made against this cry of the heart? Who wants to stand up and deny suffering? The preceding person on the panel spoke against the ENDA revisions by noting mostly the costly and unreasonable litigation that will follow, but you can see how feeble that objection is relative to the pain of these vulnerable souls. So some businesses have to pay a few dollars more—isn’t that worth the healing that will go with it?

Given our current cultural climate and the values of equality, diversity, tolerance, and non-judgmentalism, I see no effective answer to these emotional pleas. There are principled answers, yes, but none that pass muster in public settings.

In other words, we have come to a point in our cultural discourse where reason and argumentation are no longer convincing in the public square because they have been effectively replaced with appeals to emotion. What can you say to disagree with how a person feels?

And then thirdly, a now well-known article that was published in the New York Times authored by Judith Shulevitz titled, "In College and Hiding From Scary Ideas." In it, she details a campus group's reaction to a debate about what is allegedly the "rape culture" on campus. This woman's group effectively quashed the debate and erected a safe room where people could go if they heard rhetoric that "invalidated their experience." The organizer of the safe room remarked that she was hurt by hearing people disagree with her deeply held and sincere beliefs. The author analyzes the situation well and cites what I think is a perfect moniker for this trend - "self-infantilization." She writes,

Still, it’s disconcerting to see students clamor for a kind of intrusive supervision that would have outraged students a few generations ago. But those were hardier souls. Now students’ needs are anticipated by a small army of service professionals — mental health counselors, student-life deans and the like. This new bureaucracy may be exacerbating students’ “self-infantilization,” as Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, suggested in an essay for Inside Higher Ed.

But why are students so eager to self-infantilize? Their parents should probably share the blame. Eric Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote on Slate last month that although universities cosset students more than they used to, that’s what they have to do, because today’s undergraduates are more puerile than their predecessors. “Perhaps overprogrammed children engineered to the specifications of college admissions offices no longer experience the risks and challenges that breed maturity,” he wrote. But “if college students are children, then they should be protected like children.”

Examples of this new cultural reality could be produced ad-infinitum, ad-nauseam from the arenas of academia, government, politics, entertainment, and the media. For a long time people have lamented the rise of the power of the appeal to emotion in politics, and certainly that is a common problem, but this is different. This is systemic. This is engendered by, and I would say made necessary by, secular progressivism, and today the culture-shapers have themselves been shaped by this brand of emotivism and lack the intellectual tools to make any other appeal.

So, how did this happen?

For my thesis in graduate school I chose to read the collected works of Richard Rorty who was at the time the leading American philosophical proponent of what was then called postmodernism. People still use the term, but is has been made gauche by those who are its disciples. (That happens when an idea is so bad that its disciples refuse to give up the worldview but deny the title, as if changing the label will remove the stain.) Postmodernism had its roots in a philosophy that proclaimed suspicion of all truth claims. Rorty once infamously declared that "truth is what my colleagues let me get away with." It was argued that appeals to truth failed and did not do justice to how various cultures viewed the world and taught their children how to live. Then postmodernism took another step and went from suspicion of truth to the belief that any appeal to truth was an act of power over another human being, and thus our modern notion of "tolerance" was born. To be tolerant, in this new postmodern world, was to avoid making truth claims or judgment claims of others, and those who did were labeled intolerant.

This is a terrible view of tolerance. In reality, tolerance is reserved for those with whom you disagree. In this new view of tolerance, it is reserved only for those who agree with you, and those who disagree are labeled as intolerant. And being labeled intolerant is now the worst thing that can be said about  a person.  It is a terrible definition, but it has won the day. The catch with this view is that it was destined for self-destruction the day it became cultural cache. It rejects reality, grounds any concept of "truth," "good," or "right," in personal preferences, and raises emotion to the highest level of public discourse. As a result we have, in more ways than one, lost our minds and replaced them with our tear ducts. And moving forward, all we need is the next set of whiners to make their case and make it louder than the last group of whiners, and the definition of what is socially acceptable will change. The whole worldview is a self-collapsing cycle of public protests and threats of litigation.

Postmodernism ironically reduced itself to appeals to power, and over time has further reduced itself to appeals to emotional power. When truth beyond your preferences is gone, the only way to get your way is to exercise power over other human beings. Argument is gone, power reigns. And this is the very core of the secular progressive worldview, which is why I argue that the reduction of all human interaction to power and emotion is a necessary consequence of this way of seeing things. This also explains why secular progressives accuse everyone else of making power-plays to get their way - it is projection pure and simple. They have no argument, by virtue of their postmodern worldview, so they sling emotion and hope it sticks.

For the young mind, the result is exactly what our three authors noted. The uniquely human capacity for reason and reflection is diminished in favor of emotion coddling. More and more, older children are unable to make the crucial distinction between what reality really is like (for example, other smart people disagree with you and deserve to be heard) from their sincerely held beliefs (leading to climate where dissenting points of view are labeled as "hate" or "intolerance").

This leads to what is now the new fundamentalism. More on that later.

For now it will suffice to say that Christians ought to have nothing to do with this rampant self-infantilization. Christians are people of truth, not propaganda. Christians are people of self-sacrificing love, not coercive hate. Christians are unafraid of other points of view, for all truth is God's truth. Christians are people who are being built and matured in the image of Christ and in the kingdom of God, not letting themselves get stuck in the early Freudian stages of infant development.

In addition, Christians are people of hope. There really is a powerful and redemptive truth out there than can change a life and free it from its childish shackles.

Monday, March 23, 2015

What I See As A Pastor

I had a chance to show someone today "what I see" when I look over a congregation as a pastor.

A young man has been walking to church for a few weeks and he stopped by today in bad shape. Life is hard for him and he is baffled about where God is and whether he is paying any attention. A couple of us had a chance to talk with him and pray with him, but I have to tell you, these conversations are often very hard to get through. It is a common truth that life is often very hard, and most every Christian will experience seasons when they believe God is absent, and despair.

At one point he mentioned what he sees when he walks in the doors of our church. He sees people with smiling faces and happy children. He sees people who love God. He sees people raising their hands in worship. He sees people who feel the presence of God, and he keeps coming back because he feels the presence of God here as well. He wants what they have.

So I took him into the sanctuary, we walked down to the front, turned around, and I showed him a little of what I see every Sunday. I also see people happy to be with the family of God and who worship with all they have each week. I also see beautiful families, and I revel in the sounds of children racing through the halls, hugging their parents, and carrying around whatever craft they glued and colored that morning. I even get to hold a few of them.

I also see the saint who is twice widowed but who pours her life into her brothers and sisters in Christ. I see the families dealing with severe mental and physical disabilities who bring their kids and family members because worship soothes them. I see teens and young adults who have lost parents at an all too early age, but who come and find friendship and strength in church. I see blended families following God but who struggle with the rotten choices of their other family members. I see parents with wayward children who struggle in prayer constantly. I see single parents doing their dead-level best. And the story goes on, and on.

To my eyes, this is part of what makes church so beautiful. It isn't the perfection. It is more the quality of the mercy and grace of God alive in imperfect and hurting lives. It is the beauty of lumps of coal being turned into diamonds by the power of a loving and nail-scarred God. It is the cross leading to resurrection.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Disciple and Happiness

There is a line in Pride and Prejudice in which one sister tells another, and I am paraphrasing here, that she cannot have her happiness until she has her goodness.  Jane Austen is relying on a traditional sense of happiness (and goodness) to make her point that virtue is the path to true happiness. For a very long time philosophers and theologians believed that humans were made to be certain kinds of beings, namely rational and virtuous beings, and that we would not lead fulfilling lives until we began to function according to our created mandate. Thus, happiness was to be a consequence of reason and virtue. This idea, which reigned philosophy and culture for centuries, has fallen apart and been replaced with one form of hedonism or another. Happiness now is a factor of what makes us feel a particular emotion without any regard to virtue or the right training of character. In fact most people now find the idea, "the right training of character," to be odd or offensive.

But for the follower of Jesus Christ, we must return to a version of this traditional notion. Moreland and Issler say, "According to the ancients [Moses, Solomon, Jesus, Aristotle, Plato, and the church], happiness is a life well lived, a life of virtue and character, a life that manifests wisdom, kindness, and goodness" (The Lost Virtue of Happiness, pg. 25, italics theirs). The way I want to put it here is that in the life of the believer happiness is the place where there is no tension between what gives God joy and what gives you joy.

For the Christian, maturity consists in the building of the life and character of God within us. As the Apostle Paul noted, we have been predestined to be conformed to the image of God's Son. This is not a bad thing. It is a good thing. It is a beautiful and powerful thing. It is a joyful thing. But it presupposes that we currently, or in our broken human condition, are not in the image of God (Romans 8:29). We must be transformed to get there. Thus, the things that give us joy or happiness now may need to change and the things that give God joy must replace them in the makeup of our character.

So, at the very least, the Christian needs to learn that they cannot accept happiness on hedonistic terms, or to settle for the kind of joy that comes with a broken and sinful nature. As C.S. Lewis said in another context, if we do those things we are happy with playing in the mud when the glories of heaven are available to us. The Christian is given the Word of God, the life of Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and these become our guides in learning God's kind of happiness and joy, and they become the power of our transformation.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Toward a Public Christian Faith

It has become a common, if unexamined, belief that the only institutions that have anything to say about a culture’s common problems are politics, law, and higher education, especially the hard sciences. What this means is that when we are faced with common, large, problems we look to these institutions, people, and their respective ideologies to provide solutions. The problem is that none of them have any solutions worth any serious devotion.

The Christian, however, has at their disposal another resource that has answers to public problems. At the very least it provides a sound and valid foundation for understanding and addressing our common issues. But our culture has ruled it out of bounds for public discussion. The living Christ and Christian theology is the resource that exemplifies God’s wisdom and power among humans and which reveals truth to us. But people of faith, theologians, pastors, and churches have been relegated to the insignificant shadows of “private belief” or “opinion.” And not only has the outside world pushed the church and her theology out of the public square, the church has, in many respects, become content there.

To come “out of the shadows” and put forward a full-bodied public life the church must learn that she is a public institution with answers to our culture’s common problems. We need not subsume ourselves and our priorities to the other institutions listed above, and neither do we need to learn a triumphant posture over them. Instead, for the follower of Christ, all these vocations (and many, many more) become means of expressing our theology. If this is understood and practiced, the Christian need not seek a revised form of Constantinianism (because they no longer see politics as a surrogate savior), and the Christian need not separate their faith from the tasks that consume most of their waking hours (because their faith and their lives have become indistinguishable).

Part of what this means is that the church must learn to use the resources at her disposal to begin learning and teaching what it would mean to begin thinking about daily life with Christ. Christ is not a spiritual add-on, or the ideal who guides some of our moral decision making. Instead, he is the very manifestation of the Creator of all things, the smartest man who ever lived, and still alive filling his people with the power and wisdom of his kingdom. So, we don’t begin thinking about marriage, politics, law, education, computer programming, or custodial work with the presupposition that Christ is not concerned. On the contrary, if the Christian is doing it, Christ is deeply concerned and involved.

Does this mean we must develop a “Christian quantum physics,” a “Christian computer programming language,” or a “Christian” anything? Not necessarily. Instead, we ought to become people enamored with and filled with Christ and then go do our jobs, or relate to friends and family, or vote.

I wonder from time to time, what would it look like for the local church to become so robust a community founded on the truths and life of Christ that people find in her the resources they need to address life and all that comes with it?

Christians in this World

The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus was written in the late 2nd century by an unknown disciple, self-described as a "disciple of the apostles" to a Roman teacher who was likely the tutor to Marcus Aurelius. Though an ideal, it is a wonderful description of how Christians can approach their lives in this world - lives lived here but belonging to God.

For Christians are not distinguished from the
rest of mankind either in locality or in speech or in customs. For they dwell not somewhere in cities of their own, neither do they use some different language, nor practise an extraordinary kind of life. Nor again do they possess any invention discovered by any intelligence or study of ingenious men, nor are they masters of any human dogma as some are. But while they dwell in cities of Greeks and barbarians as the lot of each is cast, and follow the native customs in dress and food and the other
arrangements of life, yet the constitution of their
own citizenship, which they set forth, is marvellous,
and confessedly contradicts expectation. They dwell in their own countries, but only as
sojourners; they bear their share in all things as
citizens, and they endure all hardships as strangers.
Every foreign country is a fatherland to them, and
every fatherland is foreign. They marry like all other men and they beget
children; but they do not cast away their offspring. They have their meals in common, but not their
wives. They find themselves in the flesh, and yet they
live not after the flesh. Their existence is on earth, but their
citizenship is in heaven. They obey the established laws, and they
surpass the laws in their own lives. They love all men, and they are persecuted by
all. They are ignored, and yet they are condemned.
They are put to death, and yet they are endued with
life. They are in beggary, and yet they make many
rich. They are in want of all things, and yet they
abound in all things. They are dishonoured, and yet they are
glorified in their dishonour. They are evil spoken of,
and yet they are vindicated. They are reviled, and they bless; they are
insulted, and they respect. Doing good they are punished as evil-doers;
being punished they rejoice, as if they were thereby
quickened by life. War is waged against them as aliens by the
Jews, and persecution is carried on against them by
the Greeks, and yet those that hate them cannot tell
the reason of their hostility.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Discipleship Changes Things - The Words We Use

When we become disciples of Jesus - or become serious about following him - all kinds of things are supposed to change. The Jesus way of life is a new way; a way of thinking, believing, and doing that is often radically different than other non-Jesus ways of doing things. So it would follow that discipleship to Jesus begins to transform our lives in ways we may expect, and in ways we may not expect. So, what kinds of changes might we expect if we begin to authentically follow Jesus? Over time I want to flesh out several changes, but here is one you might not expect.

Our vocabulary changes, and I don't mean we stop swearing. We may very well stop swearing when we become disciples, but I am thinking of a much more significant shift in the way we understand and use words. Words are powerful things. Language is more life-shaping than you probably think. At the very least, words signify things and ideas. When we use words we are verbalizing what is going on around us or within us. We express relationships between things in the world and we express what is going on in our inner states. We say, "The light is green," and we mean to say something about not only a certain colored light, but to also convey meaning. We are saying, "it is your turn to drive." We can say, "I feel anxious," and reveal something going on within us that another person may not know unless we say it, and we may be communicating a need for sympathy or reassurance. In either case, we use words in ways that we believe will communicate with other people.

So it is with our use of words and ideas that appear both in Scripture and in the common culture. What do you think of when someone tells you they spent Thanksgiving with their "family"? What ideas and images are conjured in your mind when someone talks about their "anger"? What about "friendship," "work," or "love"? The images and ideas that arise in your mind when people use those words with you are the result of years of contextual content-filling. In other words, those words have already been defined for you (in large part) by your background, education, language, culture, and so forth. Exaggerating a bit, you might say that whoever or whatever filled your vocabulary with meaning has also given you your view of how the world works.

There is an unavoidable tension here for the disciple of Jesus. Christian theology and practice wants to use words one way and the rest of the world wants to use them in another way. We live in a pluralistic culture, becoming more so all the time, and each corner of our culture wants to use words in different ways.  The more ways a single word is used, the more difficult it becomes to maintain a straightforward belief in the way "we" think that word ought to be used. To put it another way, if the church teaches you one thing about "love" for one hour a week, and media teaches you a very different thing about "love" 40-60 hours a week, which meaning will be easier to believe? And if you want to believe what the church teaches about "love" then you will need to work harder at it.

But then, it seems this is one thing the follower of Christ learns to do if they plan on being genuine disciples. If we are discipled by someone or something, we are taught a view of the world by them. The disciple is striving to learn the Jesus way of life, including the Jesus way of using words. This means that we learn how to begin with sound biblical ways of understanding words and their respective concepts and carry them into our respective niches of society. What normally happens is the reverse is the case. Church and Christian theology often feel odd or antiquated to us because we have let other things define the terms for us.

So, what does it mean for you to robustly learn and absorb the biblical meaning of "love" or "forgiveness" or "work" and then engage your world? We are all waiting to see, and we will all be better for it.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Links with Little Context

What are the rights of Donor-Conceived People? by Alana S. Newman

We’ve created a class of people who are manufactured, and treat them as less-than-fully human, demanding that they be grateful for whatever circumstances we give them. While fathers of traditionally conceived human beings are chased down and forced to make child support payments as a minimal standard of care, people conceived commercially are reprimanded when they question the anonymous voids that their biological fathers so “lovingly” left.

Five Ways Liberals Ignore Science by David Harsanyi

It’s no big deal for us to ask Republican evolution skeptics to raise their hands or force a bogus Senate vote to try and shame Republicans, yet no reporter would ever think to ask a pro-choice politician if they believe life begins at conception. Sometimes denialism matters and sometimes it doesn’t.

Why It Matters That the Exodus Really Happened by Gregory Alan Thorbury

Truth matters. People want to know the answers: the who, the what, the when, the how, and the why. And without providing those little truths, they may never learn of the ultimate Truth behind them.

Molecular Biology Has Failed to Yeild a Grand "Tree of Life"  by Casey Luskin

Unfortunately, one assumption that these evolutionary biologists aren't willing to re-evaluate is the assumption that universal common ancestry is correct. They appeal to a myriad of ad hoc arguments -- horizontal gene transfer, long branch attraction, rapid evolution, different rates of evolution, coalescent theory, incomplete sampling, flawed methodology, and convergent evolution -- to explain away inconvenient data which doesn't fit the coveted treelike pattern. As a 2012 paper stated, "phylogenetic conflict is common, and frequently the norm rather than the exception." At the end of the day, the dream that DNA sequence data would fit into a nice-neat tree of life has failed, and with it a key prediction of neo-Darwinian theory.